Who the fudge is Steven & what's his angle?

Or, answers to questions you were too afraid to ask

First, I be Steven Villaverde, though you can call me Steve. One syllable names are more intimate and sweeter-sounding, I find.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always lacked confidence and been extraordinarily timid, so much so that school officials placed me early on in a special kids program believing I had a speech impediment. When they eventually found out I was simply shy, they pulled me out but not before becoming a point of embarrassment.

I still don't hear the end of it.

It didn't help I also cried over every little thing that I couldn't do in class. The face of a girl looking towards me with her pity eyes ready join me in tears is still carved in my head.

As you can likely tell, I stood apart from my classmates and barely interacted in elementary school. You'd think I would've improved going into Junior High but, no, it was pretty much the same.

I did drop the crybaby title so that's sort of a win, no?

It was pretty lonesome until around 1997 when I found companionship in the form of an inanimate object: a Windows PC paired with the Netscape browser. It quickly turned into a cave I hid inside, sheltering me during my lonely school years.

However, it was a curse to come haunt me later. At a time when you're supposed to learn how to be around others and develop communication skills, I lived in my own world. By high school, I even stayed after class to continue staring at the screen some more because our family couldn't afford a PC then. Thus, it shouldn't come as a shocker that I went on to grab a B.S. degree in Computer Science.

My career somehow felt destined. Not only would I continue using computers but the chances of a good salary were high. This was important because growing up, we lived day by day. So, as the first in the family to earn a college degree, everyone pinned their hopes on me to radically change our situation.

And I would have except after graduating from Stony Brook University, no one would hire me. No matter who I shot my job application to, I didn't hear a peep from them.

It's like the whole technology industry met and together decided they didn't want me in.

For weeks I applied but it got harder when I noticed I couldn't even land an interview and get a chance to present myself face to face.

And this is where my weak past resurfaced because the more rejections came in, the more nervous and down I got. That sinking feeling in my stomach felt heavier. Intellectually I understood getting a job takes time but every silence I heard killed what little confidence I had.

What made it worst is I couldn't understand what was happening. I followed what career counselors recommended. Silly as it sounds, I believed that once you left college, all you had to do was show up and a position was pretty much guaranteed.

Boy, was I wrong.

After some months passed, I stopped applying altogether. I didn't want to continue. For a period afterwards I felt so down and locked myself in my room, not wanting to go outside.

By some chance, however, I heard back from one of the last desperate submissions I had made before going dark. A tiny startup in Queens wanted me as a developer/designer.

The catch?

No pay. Just the dream of hitting it big one day. It wasn't exactly ideal but with nothing else going on, I jumped on it.

When I got there, I naturally worked on the development side but in time wore different hats. It was weird being all over the place but then again my situation wasn't normal. Of all my duties, none was more foreign to me than the marketing role. I seriously knew nothing about it which, funnily enough, is where I made the biggest impact.

Through trial and error over months, and a little studying on the side, I managed to launch a website built from scratch onto one that had hundreds of visitors coming in. (and going up every month) All this done through search engine optimization & social media.

My first taste of marketing.

Despite turning out to be a great time, I sadly left the tiny startup when a stark reminder of my college debt came in the gray mailbox. To repay the loan, I delved into the freelance world of design and development for a period. And it was going so so for months but adding new clients was inconsistent and harder than I thought. Honestly, it wasn't fun but I felt I had no other choice but to stick it out.

However, everything changed one evening when a Russian client and I were riding a train talking.

“You know, you're not a great developer”, he casually stated, almost as a matter of fact.

I didn't know what to say. I could only muster a quiet yes. I couldn't disagree. The prior weeks I had been building a web app using the Symphony framework but completed just one feature during that time.

He didn't say it with malice and, looking back now, he was bringing the issue out in the open to help me. Nonetheless, all I chose to hear was, “you suck.”

I felt broken afterwards.

He confirmed what I already knew for quite some time but didn't want to admit: creating software is not my thing. I pushed for a programming job thus far because I wanted the money that came with it in order to support my family. But the more I worked at it, the less I enjoyed it. It's little wonder I dragged my feet when writing code.

Not only that, the past years I was so warped in the quest to find a developer position, I also cut myself off from everyone and barely interacted with anyone outside my family.

It was all about the money and I didn’t even have that to show for it. I was alone. This is what made hearing those words that night worse.

At this point, I was drifting, getting by, and feeling terrible.

If I didn't want to develop software nor was I great at it, what would I do? That's what I asked myself but couldn't figure out.

Only when I thought back to my time with the tiny startup that search engine optimization came to mind. It wasn't exactly technology related but since I had a blast doing it and with what I was able to produce at that tiny startup, I felt I had the perfect case study.

I'm a shoo in, I thought.

Returning to the drawing boards, I prepared my new job application, and sent that in.

Well, my hopes were crushed as they brought similar results like last time: nada.

Not a single response.

I couldn't believe it.

I just couldn't stand out in order to bypass the resumé filter stage. The nightmare was happening all over again but now with a different industry.

I was hitting a brick wall wherever I went.

Still, I wasn't going to give up early and run away from a job search. At least, not this time. Especially not after the family now hinted and urged me to help out financially. And so I continued applying in the coming weeks but even with my stronger determination, the same outcome remained.

One day I snapped.

I was simply upset.

Sad but mad.

That day I threw out my old cover letter and replaced it with a shorter and edgier piece, ignoring much of what school taught. (influenced by the moment, of course) I knew I was the perfect fit for the SEO position and so I made that abundantly clear in my writing, which I am sure my career counselors wouldn't approve of.

Yet, lo and behold, not long after sending the new version, the ad agency surprisingly called me for an interview downtown, where I went on to win the spot.

You can't imagine how ecstatic I was. I couldn't explain how it happened but that didn't mattered.

My family was proud. I'll never forget that moment.

My moment.

Years after graduating and wandering, I had finally landed a normal job. A paying one. It happened so fast, I didn't think about what I had done to get it. Years passed before I figured out the two main reasons.

Now inside an ad agency, I went to work immediately and rubbed shoulders with others to build out search campaigns for clients in different fields including Alaskan fish, chocolate drinks, bath and body, and men's shaving products. Initially, I feared I might not cut it since my formal background was in technology but it turned out my knowledge and skills rivaled those with more experience. My time at that tiny startup prepared me well.

One of my personal highlights was when the agency founder himself acknowledged me and remarked that I was a smart guy. Many would easily dismiss the compliment but not me. All I knew was failure and hearing otherwise made me rethink everything. They weren't empty words because in time he put me in charge of the company's own SEO efforts.

I didn't know it then but they were slowly helping a beaten person believe in himself.

Yet, with all the good going on, over time I picked up on an unusual pattern that kept rearing its head in my work and, worse, I didn't know how to fix it.

While, yes, I drove relevant traffic from Google onto my clients’ sites and matched them with the product they were searching for, conversions were still low.

What this indicated was that if I placed a hammer, for example, in front of a visitor actively looking for one, you're not guaranteed she'll buy.

For someone who used to work with logical computers, this was confusing. I thought I understood all aspects of marketing then but clearly that was, ironically, all hubris.

Before I could look into this puzzle further, a vehicle got in the way.

While crossing the street with the “walking man” light on, some bastard swerved around the corner and rammed his car against my mother. Though she survived, the impact left her injured and unable to fend for herself. I remained with the agency a few more months after but eventually left.

And so for the following years, I took care of my mother at home. The first two were the most time consuming as she healed and recovered. Despite that, I used what spare time I had to look into the issue from my old job. It bothered me still. But not knowing where to start exactly, I roamed everywhere online going through topics like

  • conversion optimization
  • sales
  • persuasion
  • business models
  • storytelling
  • copywriting
  • marketing funnels and
  • mail order marketing

In addition, I regularly borrowed books from the local Aguilar library branch and even signed up for paid online training on marketing.

Together they opened my eyes to a hidden underground world. It’s like when a kid first learns Santa isn't real.

I knew I was on the right path when the hidden became visible. Gradually, I was seeing through many real life advertisements, breaking them down and explaining why certain elements were there. I wasn't sure how far I was but it encouraged me to push on.

After about two years, my mother got noticeably better. Thankfully, she now moved around with the walker and needed me less and less.

Yet, even with my time opening up, I found myself at home just the same. I didn't have anything to look forward to nor anyone to call and hang out with. I may have higher self esteem but I was no different from when I was younger.

My past obsession and struggles left me isolated. It reached that point, in my opinion, because one tends to downplay feelings of loneliness the longest.

It hit me hardest one day while inside my dark room and the sunny day could be seen outside. Here I was inside staring at a computer screen except instead of acting like a sheltering cave, the PC was now a prison cell.

The days were looking the same.

I felt a sudden sadness and anger. This was going to stop one way or another.

Going through Craigslist, I picked up the idea of getting someone to teach me the Korean language, an interest developed from watching Korean dramas. Not only would it get me out of the house but it would be fun.

The problem I observed were that not many posters were having success on Craigslist. Sure, they published the same post week after week but eventually they disappeared when no one got in touch.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Seeing this for it was, a copywriting task, now came the time to put to practice what I had studied. Right away I spotted the mistakes other posters made. It took a day to come up with my own post but it was worth it because within a week of going live, I received a reply from a native Korean girl willing to help me for free.

I almost jumped from my seat when I got her email.

Not only had I confirmed my copywriting skills in the real world by convincing a skeptical stranger, a girl at that, but I now had something to do.

For the following months, we met at the Sony Plaza and it turned out to be one of the greatest things that happened in my life. I improved my Korean but, more importantly, I found companionship from a living friend. And it wasn't by mere chance or fate.

I made it happen.

I changed my own fortune and it's a wonderful and empowering feeling.

All of a sudden, everything was looking up. I was happier. Wanting more of this, I forced myself to walk outside every week even if I didn't have a destination in mind. In doing so, I inadvertently discovered a small rowing community just 14 blocks away. Who knew? I am 100% convinced that this wouldn't have happened had I not stepped out.

And, boy, would that have been a pity because that summer turned out to be one of the best summers ever. Exploring NYC by water is a different beast.

Because of the nature of free rowing, there’s always an influx of new rowers coming in all the time.

Think about it.

Just months ago, dark walls surrounded me but here I was outside, chatting with everyone, and rowing around the boroughs.

It was a huge turnaround.

I so hit it off with the non-profit rowing organization that they placed me in charge of updating their Facebook page which I happily do to this day.

Now happy, confident, more social, and with the ability to craft persuasive copy, I am completely different from what I had been years earlier. It's no surprise the next time I applied for another ad agency, the hiring process went quicker, smoother and without much fuss.

So if you ask, what does marketing and copywriting mean to me? I can tell you with no doubt in my mind: the power to change.